Why is there so much poverty in a rich country like Canada?

With so much wealth in the world, why is there so much poverty? Poverty slows the development of all societies, and it seems obvious that we should try to eradicate it, but it seems like an intractable problem. How can we put poverty behind us, and what does our attitude towards poverty and social mobility tell us about who we are? A discussion from the Stratford Festival.
Dozens met on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature to rally for an increase to the province's minimum wage on Tuesday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:58

With so much wealth in the world, why is there so much poverty? Poverty slows the development of all societies, and it's obvious that we should try to eradicate it, but it still seems intractable. How can we put poverty behind us? And what does our attitude towards poverty and social mobility tell us about who we are? A discussion from the Stratford Festival.

From a panel discussion about poverty from the Stratford Festival forum. 1:06

"Poverty exists in our society because we've chosen for it to exist. Poverty is the entirely predictable outcome of policy choices and the legal infrastructure that we've created for building our economy and redistributing wealth in our society." – Fay Faraday

At the beginning of this Stratford Festival forum on poverty, Paul Kennedy asks a core question: In one of the richest countries in the world, why is there poverty? A complicated question, as there are so many reasons. One has to do with the nature of work itself in the 21st century; another has to do with the social responsibility of employers; a third reason concerns the role of government; and a fourth reason has to do with the choices we as consumers make.

Work in the 21st century has changed profoundly from the time of our parents. Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, because of the union movement, you pretty much had a job for life. Unionisation for the most part created stability in labour relations and salaries. Wages weren't high by modern standards, but there was a degree of equity across the board. All that's changed now. It's a freelance world, and we're told that most millennials will have five careers in a lifetime.

"Who is responsible for creating poverty? Who is responsible for establishing these precarious work arrangements and eroding our communities. And when we don't look at that side of the equation we let employers off the hook." – Fay Faraday

Hand-in-hand with the disintegration of "normal" jobs and careers, the responsibility attached to employers has eroded. As the state took on more and more of the burden of setting standards in working conditions, employers backed away from social responsibility. Today you'd have an argument as to whether or not employers owe anything to their employees, or to the society at large. Even Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham believed that he owed something to his staff.

"Our employers should have the responsibility for our health and safety when we go to work, and for our working conditions. And — I don't think it's too much to ask for, that we should be able to pay our bills? Is that too much to ask for? I don't think so!" – Deena Ladd

And how about us, the taxpayers and consumers? What do we owe to the checkout clerk and the worker in the garment factory? It's easy to use the self-serve checkout, but that was once someone's job; and that bargain $35 shirt was made in Sri Lanka by someone making $1 an hour – a double strike, because that someone is also living in poverty, and another someone in Canada lost their job when the manufacturing moved to Sri Lanka.

"So demand leadership from our political leaders because they have a huge say in the poverty that happens in our society, and a way for us to eliminate poverty in our society. You vote for them, so they work for you." – Debora De Angelis


**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. It was recorded the Stratford Festival. Thanks to David Campbell. Special thanks to  Ann Swerdfager and Antoni Cimolino.

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